These Astonishing Photos Of Victorian Londoners Will Blow You Away

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 37 months ago
These Astonishing Photos Of Victorian Londoners Will Blow You Away
A cat’s meat man outside a poor home in the East End, c. 1901. These men travelled the streets with their barrows, selling leftover scraps of meat from slaughterhouses as cat food. It was often horsemeat and therefore unfit for human consumption. The lettering on the side of the house marks the coronation of King Edward VII, and the well-dressed man in the centre is a missionary from the London City Mission. © Museum of London

These astonishing images of Victorian London bring the capital of the past back to life, often with bleak visions of poverty and squalor.

Child Shoeblack, 1877. Independent shoeblacks were required to obtain a five-shilling yearly licence. From Thomson, J. and Smith, A. Street Life in London, Vol.1 (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1877)

The images are part of the book Charles Booth's London Poverty Maps, a magnificently-illustrated tome which publishes the philanthropist's famous hand-coloured maps alongside anecdotes from the researchers, and contemporary photos, in one volume.  

An Italian man selling halfpenny ices C. 1876. Selling ice creams in the street was a common trade for Italian migrants in London. This photograph appeared in John Thomson and Adolphe Smith's Street Life in London (1877–78), which recorded that 'ice men constitute a distinct feature of London life'. From Thomson, J. and Smith, A. Street Life in London, Vol.1 (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1877)

In the faces of mattress stuffers, ice cream sellers and street musicians are etched the hardships of late 19th/early 20th century London life for the masses. Although the occasional smile is still forthcoming.

A group of Italians in Saffron Hill, c. 1901. A boy lounges against a cart advertising 'pure ice wafers'. The ice-cream trade was almost entirely associated with Italian migrants during this period. © Museum of London

Booth's project colour coded the streets and individual buildings of the Victorian capital, marking them from 'Lowest Class. Vicious, semi-criminal' to Upper-middle and Upper classes. Wealthy.' 35% of those Booth surveyed lived in abject poverty, despite 55% of that 35% having an employment.

A Booth map of Bethnal Green
Sitting on the doorstep of her typical East End home, Mrs Robinson stuffed mattresses with straw for a living. For each completed mattress she could expect to receive one shilling. circa 1900. © Museum of London

Frighteningly, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation survey in 2016 revealed 55% of Londoners living in abject poverty, to be in employment.

Charles Booth’s portrait. Tireless energy, enthusiasm and hard work allowed Booth to lead a rich and varied life. In addition to running the family shipping business and conducting the Inquiry, Booth enjoyed a busy social life, spending time with the leaders of social reform in London, Liverpool and New York, and an active family life, supported by his wife, Mary, and six children. © Wellcome Collection
Presentation board elaborating the findings of Booth's enquiries, 1901. © Charles Booth Archive, courtesy of London School of Economics
The Royal Oak, 135 East Hill, Est. 1871. Reproduced by permission of Wandsworth Heritage Service
The Old Tiger's Head, 351 Lee High Road. Courtesy of Local History and Archives Centre, Lewisham
Italian street musicians C. 1876. This photograph, from John Thomson and Adolphe Smith’s Street Life in London (1877–78), shows an Italian boy entertaining passers-by by playing the harp. The text notes that Italians migrated to London as they found 'a beggar in England is richer than a labourer in Italy'.
An Italian woman in Saffron Hill C. 1901. Saffron Hill in Clerkenwell was well known as the area in which most Italian migrants settled; indeed by 1850 it was estimated there were 1,000 Italians living here. The centre of the community was St Peter’s Roman Catholic church, on Clerkenwell Road. © Museum of London
A mother and her children making matchboxes. The children were sent to fetch the chip and paper from the match factory and to return the finished boxes. This was one of the lowest paid sweated industries with families earning just two pence for 144 boxes made, and normally buying their own paste and string for tying the bundles. © Museum of London
A young mother, exhausted from spending hours making matchboxes, a pile of which sit on the table. At her feet a young child sleeps, covered by a blanket. For homeworkers in the sweated industries there was no division between work and home life and exhaustion was common as they worked an average of 16 hours per day. © Museum of London
A stonepipe-making workshop. The rapidly growing infrastructure in the capital created huge demand for products such as pipes. © Museum of London
Covent Garden Flower Women, 1877. Covent Garden was well known as a location for flower sellers. From Thomson, J. and Smith, A. Street Life in London, Vol.1 (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1877)
A vast crowd waiting outside James Preston Butchers on Hoxton Street, Shoreditch, c. 1910. courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute
Charles Booth in 1902, seated with members of his family on the steps of Gracedieu Manor, Leicestershire, where he lived in later life. © Charles Booth Archive, courtesy of London School of Courtesy

Charles Booth's London Poverty Maps is available from 24 October, RRP £49.95 but available for less. (Buying via this link will help support our site with a small commission.)

Last Updated 25 October 2019